LESOTHO: Special report - Food crisis deepens
An increasing number of people will experience food shortages
johannesburg, 11 October 2004 (IRIN) - Crop production in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho has steadily declined over the past three years, mainly due to drought and the impact of HIV/AIDS.
Factors such as a shortage of arable land and rising unemployment have also aggravated the situation, with an estimated 68 percent of the population living in poverty.
Earlier this year, following another poor harvest, the government of Lesotho made an appeal for food aid to feed some 600,000 people. It is now predicted that up to 948,000 people will experience food shortages - nearly half the population, according to unofficial estimates.
Aid agencies, including the World Food Programme (WFP), had hoped they would be able to end their emergency operations in the country this year. WFP had planned to shift its focus to a post-crisis recovery operation by 1 July but has had to extend its emergency operation (EMOP) to June 2005.
"For the third consecutive year, bad weather has led to drastically reduced agricultural production and severe food insecurity," WFP said.
Tiny Lesotho's dependence on South Africa has made the country highly vulnerable to the effects of rationalisation in their neighbour's mining industry. Thousands of Basotho miners have been retrenched over the past few years, resulting in shrinking household incomes, while the cost of living has increased simultaneously.
"The adult population HIV prevalence rate of 31 percent adds to the poverty profile of the population and reduces the availability of productive community members over time, while also increasing the care burden," WFP noted. The orphan population also increased from 85,000 in 2001 to 91,000 in 2003, according to a Disaster Management Authority/WFP survey.
"We see the impact of HIV/AIDS on food security, although the hectarage of land not planted due to HIV/AIDS has not been established, the number of orphans is rising all the time. The official population is 2.2 million, but it's estimated at 1.8 million, and UNFPA [UN Population Fund] predicts that it could go down to 1.6 million (due to HIV/AIDS)," said Mads Lofvall, WFP deputy country representative for Lesotho.
He added that "we could have a situation where 10 percent of the population are orphans", and warned that HIV/AIDS was one of the "biggest challenges facing the humanitarian community in Southern Africa".
"But because it does not have Darfur kinds of images, it's not considered with the same seriousness. I have a feeling that people talking about HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa are being seen to be crying wolf," he said. "The concern for WFP is that people should understand the link between good nutrition and HIV/AIDS."
Lofvall told IRIN that hopes for a recovery following this year's harvest depended on favourable rains, which usually arrived by August, and the availability of agricultural inputs. But very little rain had fallen by early October and fields in the rural areas were not being worked.
"If the warm weather continues, the soil will dry up again, preventing the farmers from preparing the ground and, therefore, another year of low harvest output can be predicted. However, it's still a little too early to determine the impact, as a lot will depend on what is happening over the next month [October]," said Lofvall.
"Having said that, it should also be noted that yet another year with low production will reinforce the bad cycle of people having to resort to depleting assets [such as livestock] for the fourth consecutive year," Lofvall explained. The big question was whether "the poor households still have any disposable assets to overcome the food shortages".
When WFP's current EMOP ends next year, the agency plans to move into a Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation (PRRO), which will run for three years.
"From a WFP point of view, we will monitor the situation closely ... within the [regional] PRRO there is an unallocated emergency reserve, to be used in countries where things are not picking up according to the predictions. In case Lesotho will need to continue the emergency assistance after June next year, due to yet another failed cropping season, we will request an allocation from this emergency window," Lofvall added.
As WFP's relief activities end after the next harvest in June 2005, he said, "we hope to focus on food-for-work activities and target HIV/AIDS affected families [and] orphans, and promote the prevention of mother-to-child-transmission [of HIV]. As we are giving food to pregnant and nursing mothers, it is a good opportunity for UNICEF [UN Children's Fund] to reach people - [for] UNAIDS as well".STRUCTURAL PROBLEMS
Apart from the impact of exogenous shocks such as erratic weather on crop production, Lesotho's agricultural sector has been limited by its reliance on traditional rain-fed methods of farming.
"In Lesotho, even with favourable weather conditions, with only 9 to 10 percent [of the land] arable, it means that food security, under the current farming system, will not be realised. There's no irrigation [farming]; agri-infrastructure is not in place. Getting fertiliser and seeds out [to farmers] at the right time is not [happening]," Lofvall explained.
"It's rain-fed agriculture. There's a lot of soil erosion, and a lot of investment [in agriculture] will need to take place," he added. Irrigation and conservation farming could provide much higher yields.
WFP's food-for-work dam construction in Tsoeneng
When WFP phases out the EMOP and moves into the PRRO, it will focus on assisting the country's agricultural recovery. "We will be shifting from general food distributions to food-for-work/assets activities. We are trying to create infrastructure that would help rural economies grow, such as range-management programmes that can help ease erosion," said Lofvall.
He noted that "when we talk about food security in Lesotho, we are also talking about an access problem".
"In order to access food, people need to have purchasing power, but that's difficult: coupled with HIV/AIDS, the unemployment rate is high - at least 30 percent," Lofvall said. And although the burgeoning textile sector has created jobs, "the wages are not high".
IRIN visited a WFP food-for-work programme in Linakotseng, just outside the capital, Maseru, where residents have been incentivised to create assets for their community by being 'paid' in WFP food rations.
The project has 120 residents working to construct a dam, to be used as a source of water for livestock and crop irrigation. Linakotseng is a food-deficit area, where the villagers find it impossible to cultivate enough to sustain themselves during dry spells.
George Makambwe Lungu, a United Nations Volunteers (UNV) official in Maseru, manages the project along with a committee elected by the community.
"In 2001 we did a community needs assessment and found there was a critical shortage of water. They needed a dam so they can do irrigation farming, fish farming, and use the water for their animals. They only had one unprotected spring," he explained.
The community began constructing a dam in June this year, working four hours a day and receiving a monthly food basket from WFP in return.
"Each worker gets a 50 kilogram bag of maize meal, 5 kilograms of pulses (beans) and two litres of cooking oil," Lungu said. Distributions are followed up by a WFP monitoring visit, which, among other things, checks on how long the rations last in an average home.
Over 16,000 people in Linakotseng will benefit from construction of the dam.
Food-for-work projects provide able-bodied members of the community with the opportunity to work for food, while creating assets that will, in coming years, improve their food security.
Moshoeshoe Kwoetlele, chairman of the local residents' committee, told IRIN they used a wealth-ranking system to determine who should participate in the food-for-work programme. "We chose the vulnerable ones," such as households taking care of orphans and chronically ill family members. "Most of these people did not have anything to eat in their homes."
At the start of the dam construction project many of the participants were "weak and slow, but now they are very active on the site" as a result of their improved nutrition, Kwoetlele noted. "Now I can hardly believe they are the same group."
Mamohau Lefoka, who started working on the dam last month, said she was grateful for the WFP ration she received for her contribution of labour.
Rehabilitating dongas will ease soil erosion
"We rely on piece jobs and, sometimes, I have no work and my husband has no work. The food rations we receive here make a difference, especially since we have five children," she told IRIN.
In the nearby community of Abia, UNVs are coordinating another food-for-work project. The community has been building silt traps to rehabilitate a donga (a steep-sided gully).
"We have 224 people involved in this project. The donga is eroding grazing land, so they are building silt traps: as the rains come, the water carries silt - we want to trap it so that, after some time, the dongas will be filled up. The Ministry of Forestry has given us 2,000 trees, which we are going to plant all along the banks of the donga," Lungu explained.
The residents involved in the project receive the same WFP ration as those in Linakotseng.
Lerato Moloi, who sits on a 24-member committee elected from the 12 villages in Abia district, told IRIN: "Before this project we did not have anything, life was a struggle."
In 2002 the residents' committee was trained to conduct a needs assessment in consultation with fellow villagers, and they identified rehabilitation of the large dongas surrounding the villages as a priority. They hope this will prevent further soil erosion and ease the degradation of grazing land.
Like thousands of other households, Moloi's family of six has been unable to grow enough food to be self-sufficient, using traditional rain-fed farming methods. "We have tried to grow crops but because of drought we don't have food, so life has been very difficult," she said.
The 12 villages in Abia have ambitious plans of following their donga rehabilitation project, including a road rehabilitation project and the construction of a clinic.
In the outlying rural community of Tsoeneng, another food-for-work project involving 244 people is underway. The community there is building a dam, which will be used for irrigation farming, fishing and livestock watering. ASSISTING RECOVERY
In the implementation plan for its PRRO, WFP notes that the main aim is to prevent severe food shortages in vulnerable households that have not yet recovered from recurring shocks over the past three years.
The agency aims to do this by improving the livelihoods of the vulnerable poor through food-for-work/training programmes, and by safeguarding the nutritional wellbeing of vulnerable segments of the population, such as people living with HIV/AIDS, orphans and vulnerable children (OVC), expectant and nursing women and the elderly, through targeted food distributions.
Food-for-training and income-generating activities will play an important role in recovery-focussed aid programmes.
These activities "are intended primarily for women, adolescent girls and youth, and aim to provide them with the necessary skills to undertake sustainable income-generating activities," WFP said.
The training will focus on farming skills, environmental management, life skills and HIV/AIDS awareness. Income-generating projects will include poultry and small livestock rearing, fruit preservation, tailoring and carpet weaving, while food-for-education programmes will act as an incentive for parents to send their children to school.
Under the relief component of the first year of the PRRO, WFP will be feeding about 200,000 beneficiaries through its targeted food aid distributions, 70,000 through its food-for-work programmes and 85,000 OVC.
See also - Coping in the midst of crisis